PITTSBURGH – Their names will never be etched on the Stanley Cup but the Detroit Red Wings needed their quiet contributions to reach the top.
So it goes for the family and close friends of a professional hockey player. They are the people in the background providing support during injuries, slumps and losing streaks and the ones who keep the household running during long road trips.
The players recognize the importance of these people more than anyone, which explains the mix of tears and jubilation that was on display after Detroit’s Cup-clinching victory over Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Once the trophy had been presented and the Red Wings had posed for a photo, family and friends were allowed on the ice at Mellon Arena to share in the celebration.
You had Daniel Cleary scrambling to find his wife Jelena amid the chaos and sobbing after eventually embracing her and young daughter Elle. All of the focus given to him during the series centred on his quest to become the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup but there was much more to his story than that.
The former junior star didn’t have any contract offers after the lockout ended in 2005 and leaned heavily on Jelena before accepting a tryout with the Red Wings and making the team.
“My wife is the reason why I’m a Red Wing and why I’m a Stanley Cup champion,” said Cleary. “She did a lot of good for me, put it that way. That summer when I didn’t have any team to go play on she was right there with me and helped me get through it.
“Here I am three years later with the Stanley Cup.”
As long as that trophy exists, it will have his name enscribed in it.
The same can now be said of journeyman forward Dallas Drake, who played more than 1,000 NHL games before finally winning the Stanley Cup. He signed a one-year deal with Detroit last summer with exactly that goal in mind and had to make sacrifices to achieve it.
His wife Amy and the couple’s four children spent the season living about four hours from Detroit in their off-season home in Traverse City, Mich.
“We spent a lot of nights away from each other this year,” said Drake.
There’s no doubt that it was worth it for all involved when the horn finally sounded to signal Detroit’s victory over the never-say-die Penguins.
Soon after, Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom took the Stanley Cup and passed it straight to Drake, who made eye contact with his personal cheering section while hoisting it above his head. That might end up being the last thing the 39-year-old does as an NHL player because he’ll consider retirement this summer.
“I looked right up to them and gave the trophy a kiss,” said Drake. “My family is very special. It’s what it’s all about.”
Just ask forward Kirk Maltby, who is one of five Red Wings that have been part of the four championships the team has won since 1997.
Even though each of those victories is special to him, there’s no doubt that this was the sweetest of them all because it will be shared.
“I wasn’t married or had a daughter or any family of my own (the last time),” said Maltby, who had young Ella in his arms. “She’s four now. She’s going to enjoy the Cup this year and we’re expecting twins in the summertime.
“It’s going to be unbelievable. It’s going to be a great, crazy summer.”
Detroit is the most successful NHL franchise over the past two decades and it’s hard not to think that the sense of family the organization has fostered is the major reason why.
You just had to look during the championship celebration to get a taste of the team’s history. Two hours after the game, former coach Scotty Bowman and current coach Mike Babcock stood in a room together admiring the Stanley Cup. Outside in the hallway, former captain Steve Yzerman quietly sipped a beer and wore a satisfied smile.
Owner Mike Illitch believes in loyalty and has been able to assemble a group of executives that is unmatched in the league as a result.
And, yes, he considers the people he employs with the Red Wings as being part of his extended family.
“A lot of people spin that, but that’s really true with us,” said Illitch. “We’ve had (senior vice-president) Jim Devellano since ’82 – he was the first guy I hired. So he’s been 26 years, (GM) Kenny Holland 22 years, (assistant GM) Jimmy Nill 15 or 16 years.
“When you stay together like that you just become family. We’ve just got a lot of respect for each other.”